Over the River and Through the Woods
This rescue took place in November, 1967. Embarking on a 3 day alert trip up ‘North’, we took off early from NKP, planning to arrive at the daytime site (Lima 36) at first light. As we were overflying the nighttime site (Lima 20A), however, my wingman announced he had hydraulic problems.
He stated he thought it was just the gauge, and that the limited maintenance available on the ground should be able to repair it in a few minutes. I advised him I planned to continue on alone to Lima 36.
He reminded me that we were not authorized to fly single ship over enemy terrain, but I reasoned that he could catch up with me shortly, and as there was a heavy bombing laid on for the day, I wanted to be close to the action in case we were needed.
Arriving at Lima 36 as dawn broke; I circled and buzzed the strip a few times. No one opened fire, so I figured that it still belonged to us.
I landed and we began to refuel from the fuel barrels. Not long after we had finished refueling and were assembled in the hut, we received a Mayday (emergency distress) call that an F-4 had been hit over Hanoi. We immediately scrambled and headed on an intercept course
When the Sandy’s caught up with me, they inquired where the other helicopter was. I told them not to worry; he would join us shortly.
As we ‘homed in’ on the aircraft’s distress beacon, it became apparent that the pilot had headed WNW toward China, rather than SW away from China and toward Laos.
This presented a problem. The United States was extremely worried at the time that China would find some excuse to intervene in Vietnam as they had in Korea. As a result, American aircraft were prohibited from flying near the Chinese border. Regardless, we continued to fly an intercept course toward the survivors.
As we arrived in the vicinity of the Black River (the northern and western limit of air operations), we realized we would have to cross the river if we were to rescue the two pilots. The riverbank was heavily defended, so we decided to climb to 10,000 feet and “jink” (maneuver from side to side) and spiral down as we crossed it. The flak (anti-aircraft fire) was heavy, but all five aircraft (one helicopter and four fighters) managed to cross without incident. While we flew toward the area where the survivors were down, two of the Sandy’s sped ahead to reconnoiter the scene, while the other two stayed behind to protect me.
Lead Sandy established voice contact with the pilot, who said he was about 2/3’s of the way up a steep ridge, covered with razor grass. Because of the grass, he was not able to move. There was no contact with the back-seater.
As I entered the area, I spotted a steep ridge, which was clear of trees but covered with tall grass. At the foot of the ridge was a small hamlet. I observed several military trucks parked there. Some soldiers were busy setting up what looked like anti-aircraft guns, while others were attempting to cut a path up the ridge to the survivor.
Due to ROE (Rules of Engagement) restrictions, we were unable to open fire on them. I calculated we might have enough time to pick the pilot up before the ground troops reached him. At my instruction, the survivor popped his smoke. Now I knew exactly where he was on that ridge.
I began to ease the helicopter close to the ridge, hoping to be able to establish a hover over him. It was tricky work. There were strong crosscurrents of wind, which bucked the helicopter around. What complicated matters was the necessity to hover with my rotor tips just a few feet from the steeply angled ridge in order to get over him.
I went into my hover mode, which consisted of entrusting all aircraft gauges and radios except Guard (emergency radio frequency) to my co-pilot, and blocking out everything else as I concentrated on holding the helicopter absolutely still while the hoist was being lowered.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I could sense a brilliant, white light. What was that? Was the co-pilot shining a light in my eyes? That didn’t make any sense, yet the light was there. Since I was busy maintaining the hover, I resolved to forget about it.
It was vitally important that the helicopter not be allowed to move even as much as a foot in any direction, or we would risk dragging the survivor through the sharp grass or, worse yet, knock the rotor blades off against the ridge.
Finally, the hoist reached the survivor and he began to climb onto the paddle seats. We had just begun lifting him off the ground when an enemy soldier rolled over the top of the ridge above me at a distance of about 75-100 feet. He aimed his AK-47 at us and began firing.
‘Feeling’ rather than hearing the bullets impacting the fuselage just below my seat, I yelled to the guys in the back that we were taking fire and transmitted the same message to the Sandy’s.
In the meantime, the enemy soldiers’ rounds (bullets) had continued to rise and tore into the rotor blades. The aircraft began to buck and jump as the blades lost their tracking stability.
At that time we flew our helicopters unarmed. Our only weapons were our personal M-16’s. My PJ leaned out the door past the Flight Mechanic, who was busy operating the hoist, and emptied his clip into the enemy soldier. Without a doubt, he saved my life.
Our PJ was rather ‘gung-ho’, and had loaded his M-16 with straight tracer rounds. I saw a bright tongue of flame spurt from the cabin door and rip the head off the soldier, whose body tumbled down the ridge below me.
Due to the excessive vibration, I was barely able to hold the hover as we got the survivor on board. As soon as he was safely in the cabin, I pulled away from the ridge. The white light immediately snapped off.
The Sandy’s, now freed of restrictions, were doing an enthusiastic job of obliterating the hamlet, along with the trucks and guns. The survivor called out that he thought his ‘back-seater’ was nearby, but we had more pressing problems on our hands.
The helicopter was vibrating. The vibration was so bad I seriously thought we might lose one of the blades. It was difficult to hold it steady as I turned toward home. Two of the Sandy’s accompanied me while the other two remained behind to complete their destructive work.
As we were limping along, one of the Sandy’s called out, “Don’t look now, but it appears you have a MIG (Russian jet fighter plane) at 6 o’clock (directly behind) and closing!” They both went back to engage the jet while we pondered our next move.
The classic defense of a helicopter against a fixed-wing fighter is to head straight for your opponent and then autorotate (disengage the rotors and allow the helicopter to free fall). The high sink rate of autorotation, coupled with the jet’s rapid closure speed should make him steepen his dive angle until he has to break it off. Then the helicopter can play tag among the ground clutter.
That is the textbook theory, at any rate. I had never heard of anyone actually trying it, and I wasn’t about to be the first, not with the control problems we were encountering.
We could see the MIG as a faint speck in the sky. I slid over into a cloudbank, hoping he didn’t have infrared missiles and would lose visual contact. We couldn’t stay in the clouds for very long. I knew that the peaks of nearby mountains were poking up into those clouds and didn’t want to smash into one of them.
The helicopter was still bucking and shaking. I didn’t want to perform any violent maneuvers, as I wasn’t sure it would hold together. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, we dropped out of the cloud layer and anxiously scanned the sky...